Simplify Your Way to Better Photography

Most of you reading this are using high-end cameras, typically at the D7500 level and up (in Canon speak, 80D and up; in Sony speak, A6000 and up). What you don't know is that your camera is probably more than half your problem in terms of getting better.

I've suggested experiments before that simplify things (e.g. use only one prime lens for a week), but we're going right to the heart of the matter today: use a simpler camera.

You could go all the way back to your smartphone, but that's a little draconian for our purposes. I believe you still want to control exposure, focus, and some basic things like white balance. Plus I want you to be looking through the viewfinder, not at a display held at arm's length. So look for the most dirt simple camera in your gear closet. It doesn't really matter how many megapixels it has. The real thing we're looking for here is simplicity.

Here's the basic assignment: you can only control these things while shooting:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • White Balance
  • Focus

Now, of course, you can cheat by using your ultra-complex camera but only control those five things, but I'm pretty sure you'll end up cheating at some point and finding another control to tweak. Nope, don't want that. Pick your simplest camera so you're not tempted.

Indeed, I'm going to go further: you can only change ISO and White Balance when the lighting changes. So, come into a new scene, set your ISO and White Balance, and leave it. (And yes, I want you raw shooters to set White Balance; it's a good habit to get into.)

Now deal with only these things while you're taking shots in that scene:

  • Exposure
  • Composition
  • Focus
  • Timing

People ask me all the time about how I learned exposure, focus, and timing. Well, by concentrating on them and practicing a lot while doing so. Every additional control, function, menu item, button, dial, whazit, accessory, mode, or switch you start fiddling with takes you away from concentrating on those very important things. Don't let your complex and fancy camera drag you down into that swamp of possibilities. That's why I'm suggesting something simpler.

Every once in a while I enjoy shooting with a D3500. Put it in Aperture-priority, just concentrate on those five things I mentioned up top, and there's not a lot in the camera to tempt me to do otherwise. 

What happens when you distill things back down to such basic elements is this: your composition and sense of timing improves, your exposures get more consistent. Why? Because that's what you're concentrating on, dummy! 

One thing that disturbs me every time I watch a bunch of photographers tackle their task is how often the camera comes away from their eye and they drop down into controls and menus and button pressing to do something. Almost always that something isn't making their compositions better, it isn't improving their timing on the shutter release, and it isn't often improving their exposure, so it's just not really making for better shots. 

Typically this happens when the photographer starts giving up on the AutoMagic features of their camera, whether that be exposure, focus, JPEG settings, white balance, or something even more elaborate (like panoramas, HDRs, etc.). This leads them into a labyrinth of great complexity and interactive impacts. And what suffers? Composition, timing, and exposure. Heck, I often watch people so caught up fiddling with something on their camera that they entirely miss that photo that's happening in front of them.

One mantra I live by and teach: have your camera prepared for what you want to happen. If the lions are half asleep on the ground in front of me but I want an action shot of a lion, guess where my shutter speed is set? Yep, you don't want to have the action suddenly happen and THEN think about how the camera should be set. And don't laugh. This happened once: 11 lions sleeping on the ground in front of me, a pack of wild dogs come running in without warning to take a quick swipe at the lions, and within probably a couple of seconds we went from complete no-shot here to total chaos with shots available in every direction. You don't want to be putting the camera up to your face and thinking: hmm, is the white balance correct, is my shutter speed fast enough? (Actually you do want to ask yourself those things as you're pressing the shutter release, but you want the answer to be yes, already thought of it.)

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Then add complexity.

That's what you should be practicing. And you get there by removing the thousands of possible features and millions of possible permutations of feature settings that your camera can throw at you. 

  1. Enter a scene, set ISO and White Balance.
  2. Set a starting exposure, considering aperture (depth of field) and timing (shutter speed).
  3. Compose and focus.
  4. Shoot. Go to Step 3. Once in a while you might go back to Step 2 instead. Very rarely should you go back to Step 1.

See what happens here? Because you're almost always on Step 3, you're thinking about composition (and how focus impacts it). All the time. If you're thinking about it, you should be getting better at it! One benefit of the mirrorless cameras is that, set properly, they should be showing you the exposure in real time in the viewfinder, so if you're not seeing a problem, you don't have to keep dipping into Step 2.

Now, a complication ;~).

Start this four-step process with a totally static scene (find a nice park or city space to shoot in, where things aren't changing). You start with static scenes because you have to develop the habit first, and dynamic scenes will distract you from that. Moreover, timing generally isn't so important in a truly static scene, so you're really really emphasizing composition.

Next, practice the four-step process with people doing not-very-dynamic things (milling about, playing with child on a swing set, street scene, etc.). With people involved, timing starts to become something you have to pay attention to. So Step 3 becomes "Compose, focus, and time the shot."

Finally, once you've mastered that, try your hand at things that are moving fast and often randomly (animals, sports, kids at play, your dog at play, etc.). Timing becomes a little more important than composition in your mind, but you have to master both. Now Step 3 is more like "Follow (compose), focus, time the shot."

Again, you should be doing all this only setting/changing those five basic things I called out earlier.

Yes, this all seems simplistic when put down on paper, doesn't it? Still, the thing that I notice about most photographers is that they don't go into shooting situations with a structure. Even a simple structure as I'm outlining here. What I've just given you in this article is this: a dirt simple structure to learn, perfect, and repeat. 

When you don't have a structure, the complexity of today's cameras will quickly overwhelm you. You'll end up spending lots of time thinking about camera settings and controls and not enough about composition, exposure, and timing. Your photographs don't get better because you're not concentrating on the right things. 

So here's your 2019 homework assignment: 

Week 1: practice the four-step process with static subjects in static lighting.

Week 2: practice the four-step process with things that are changing, but not changing fast.

Week 3: practice the four-step process with things changing rapidly and randomly.

After each session, evaluate what went right and what went wrong. Don't progress until you're comfortable that you've mastered each situation (static, changing, dynamic). 

This is the way you get better: structured practice, concentrating on the right things.

Bonus assignment: now that you've mastered composition, focus, timing, and exposure, are there any customizable functions on your camera—e.g. programmable buttons—that might help you do so faster? I've actually just been going through that same exercise with my Nikon Z6 and Z7, as Nikon's pre-programmed choices aren't 100% optimal for my shooting. On those cameras I have 10 positions on the Quick Menu, plus five basic buttons I can customize to bring something up to where I'm not spending time menu-dipping to make changes. Guess how I figured out how to customize those 15 things? By shooting in a structured way and noting what I wasn't able to do quickly that I might want to. Bingo. So, for instance, on the Z6/Z7 silent shooting and EFCS went into the quick menu replacing things I don't use, Focus modes and White Balance stayed on the primary buttons (Nikon chose those defaults wisely), and three other things I use regularly went into the other three buttons.

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